The Rise of the @Pastor

It seems not a month goes by without a social media brouhaha involving a high-profile Christian leader. Such was the case when a prominent pastor tweeted about the recent Oklahoma tornado in a manner that seemed to connect the deadly storm to an act of God’s judgment. In between such controversies, insightful blog posts or “retweetable” phrases also go viral. Social media is creating a new class of religious influencers. If you want to watch the modern Christian conversation unfold, just log onto Twitter or check your Facebook feed. The Christian community’s voice has become a substantial one in the social, digital space.

A new Barna study shows that, in the last two years, there has been a significant leap in the number of pastors and churches engaging social media. More than one in five American pastors (21%) say their churches use Twitter, up from only 14% in 2011. Facebook usage in churches has likewise jumped from just over half (57%) to a full seven in 10. Pastors themselves are also engaged in online communication, with nearly one-quarter (23%) who use Twitter, well over six in 10 (66%) who are on Facebook, and over one in five (22%) who have a personal blog.

Tweets Everywhere

Twitter is becoming more pervasive. Tweeters use it to follow news, stay connected with friends and followers, react to live events, keep tabs on celebrities and participate in national conversations. Church leaders are no exception, and are using Twitter increasingly as a ministry tool. While both Twitter and Facebook gained church-based users in the last 24 months, Twitter’s growth has been more impressive: Facebook increased penetration among pastors 12% in the last year, while Twitter jumped by 77%.

About one-quarter of pastors are now on Twitter. Pastors of larger, more economically well-off churches are among the highest-using segments. More than one-third of pastors of churches with more than 250 people in attendance on average (34%) say they use Twitter, and a similar number of pastors in churches with an annual budget of more than $500,000 (35%) say they use Twitter. Age is also a major factor in Twitter usage among pastors. Nearly two in five pastors aged 29-47 (39%) say they use Twitter, compared to just 6% of pastors 67 or older.

Overall, just over one in five churches (21%) use Twitter. Larger churches—those with an average attendance of more than 250 people—use Twitter the most; nearly one half of those churches (44%) report using Twitter. And churches that have an annual budget of over $500,000 are even more likely to tweet—nearly half of them (46%) have Twitter accounts.

Those numbers are significant jumps over the results of a 2011 survey, when only 14% of churches and 13% of pastors say they used Twitter. The only group that hasn’t changed much in the last few years is churches with budgets over $500,000. In 2011, nearly two in five churches (39%) reported using Twitter, compared to 46% two years later. Apparently, large churches were well ahead of their peers in terms of using the micro-blogging service. Looking at the overall pattern, in only two years Twitter has gone from a narrowly used resource among faith leaders to a key communication tool for many churches and pastors.

The Social Network Meets Church Ministry

Facebook has become so ubiquitous there’s even been a movie (The Social Network) made about its origins. Facebook boasts more than one billion worldwide users, with nearly 170 million members in the United States alone. And the number of church leaders among these members is rising.

In 2013, 70% of churches report they use Facebook, compared with 57% in 2011. Over four out of five mainline churches use Facebook, compared with two-thirds of non-mainline churches. Larger churches tend to use Facebook heavily (83% of churches with more than 250 people in average attendance said they use Facebook) along with wealthier churches (86%). Comparatively, just over half of churches with fewer than 100 people in average attendance (56%) say they use Facebook, and only half of black Protestant churches use Facebook.

About two-thirds of pastors (66%) say they use Facebook in their role as a pastor. Among pastors, the most striking difference in Facebook usage is by age group: Nearly nine out of 10 of Buster (ages 27-47) pastors (86%) say they use Facebook, compared to just over one-third of pastors over the age of 65 (37%). Again, pastors of wealthier, larger churches tended to use Facebook more, though with less significant of a divide than exists among the same groups’ Twitter usage.

Future Impact of Social Media

Beyond the adoption rates of these technologies, what is the mindset of today’s pastors regarding use of social media? Their rise is compelling many churches to incorporate these digital platforms into their ministry strategy for the future. In fact, more than two-thirds of pastors (65%) say they think social media will be a significant part of their ministry over the next two years alone. Comparatively, about one-third of Protestant pastors say they think social media is overrated and not necessary to their ministry.

Attitudes toward social media’s importance correlate to age. While more than seven in 10 of pastors ages 28-47 (72%) say they believe social media will be a significant component of their church’s ministry, just four in 10 pastors over the age of 66 think the same. In fact, a majority of pastors over the age of 66 (52%) believe social media is mostly overrated and won’t be that important to their churches over the next few years.

More than three-quarters of pastors of large churches (77%) say they think social media will comprise a significant part of their ministry over the next two years, and about that percentage of pastors of churches with annual budgets over $500,000 (79%) say the same. Among pastors who are currently serving in a part-time or volunteer basis, on the other hand, only 41% say they believe social media will be a major ministry priority.

This attitude has shifted over the last two years. In 2011, only about half of pastors (51%) said social media would be a major part of their church’s ministry. That means there has been a 27% increase in the percentage of pastors who believe social media tools are important to leverage for the sake of ministry.

Still, despite more openness, many pastors seem to be missing some of the most powerful ways in which digital tools can be deployed. The vast majority of pastors (94%) say they have not asked church attenders to tweet, text or email questions for answering during a live service.

Using Social Media in an Age of Radical Transparency

“Social media is here to stay, especially as younger leaders come to be senior pastors,” comments David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group and the director of the Barna study on social media. “While many churches have embraced the platform in recent years, there are plenty who haven’t. The research suggests many faith leaders and churches are still resistant to social media or are using it without realizing its full potential. For example, at its best, Twitter helps people have real-time conversations about ideas and events that are important to them. Yet many churches don’t allow for a two-way engagement—using it instead as merely a vehicle for announcements. While many churches may be uncomfortable encouraging such digital interactions during their worship service, there are plenty of ways to engage with people and events (both local and global) on Twitter throughout the week.

“When used properly, social media should make organizations and leaders more transparent and more connected with the people they lead. In other words, using social media properly should make leaders more social. These platforms should be used to facilitate a conversation, not simply be a broadcast tool.

“Even as faith leaders take social media tools more seriously, there are at least two challenges. The first is to believe what happens in the digital space doesn’t count as real ministry. Most churches seem to be realizing this would be like shutting off the telephone or not having email. The equal and opposite reaction is also incorrect: to prioritize digital efforts above others and to equate digital tallies as indicators of ministry success. For example, the number of Twitter followers is not the same thing as a discipleship headcount. Learning to fine-tune the tension between these extremes—and dozens of related digital-ministry challenges—will be critical in the months and years ahead.”